Written by Emily B. Landau
Institute for National Security Studies
Insight No. 180
Judging by the initial dynamics, the stakes of the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) that began on May 3 are high.
The basic positions of the different parties remain very much as they were at the last RevCon, held in 2005: the US wants to focus primarily on the ongoing challenge of NPT violators, especially Iran; the non-nuclear weapons states demand that the nuclear states do more to address their NPT commitments - both to disarm and to allow transfer of peaceful nuclear technology to the non-nuclear states; Egypt is leading the non-aligned states in pushing for implementation of the non-binding 1995 resolution on the Middle East; and Iran continues to insist that it is a member of the NPT in good standing while hurling accusations in all directions.
But important developments since 2005 have created a changed context for the interface of these conflicting interests and agendas, and the end result of the conference is likely to be quite different from 2005.
The most important development is the change in the US approach that results from the Obama administration's embracing of a nuclear disarmament agenda. In the weeks preceding the RevCon, Obama claimed significant arms control achievements, both with Russia and in the context of the Nuclear Security Summit. The US Nuclear Posture Review was similarly heralded as indication of the Obama administration's intention to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its security thinking. As reflected in Clinton's opening speech last Monday, the US was confident that it was coming into the conference with a strong hand, and that it would have no difficulty answering to the non-nuclear weapons states' ongoing complaints that the nuclear states are not doing enough to disarm. Clinton felt she was on solid ground when she delivered a particularly harsh message to Iran, emphasizing its ongoing attempt to deflect attention away "from its own record" and directing "sometimes wild accusations" against others instead.
Ahmadinejad in his speech earlier that morning had accused the US not only of having used nuclear weapons in the past, but of continuing to threaten states - including Iran - with them. He claimed that the nuclear states use proliferation fears in order to deny the non-nuclear states their right to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. But the growing recognition since 2005 of the true nature of Iran's nuclear activities has exposed it as a dangerous nuclear proliferator. In light of this prevalent assessment, Ahmadinejad's attempt to steal the show with his personal appearance and accusations against others was largely unsuccessful. Clinton had stated clearly on the eve of the RevCon that Iran's record of violations of the NPT is "indisputable." Ahmadinejad was snubbed even by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said that the onus is on Iran to explain its program, and then did not remain to listen to Ahmadinejad's speech.
But while Iran is on very shaky ground with its nuclear rhetoric, Egypt's agenda for pushing forward the implementation of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East - a move directed at pressuring Israel - has gained traction. Here too the reason for the increased Egyptian leverage as compared to 2005 goes to Obama's disarmament agenda. Adopting this agenda has put Obama at a disadvantage in dealing with Egypt's demands in two important respects. The first plays out at the tactical level: the Obama administration has a strong desire for the RevCon to be deemed a success - an additional indication that the administration is working to realize its disarmament vision. As such, Egypt's stated intent to hold the conference hostage to its agenda - by blocking any consensus decision if its demands are not met - is a potent threat as far as the US is concerned.
The second level is more substantive in nature. By focusing its nuclear arms control agenda on nuclear weapons per se, the US administration has weakened its own ability to put forth convincingly the best answer it has to the Egyptians: namely, that conditions in the Middle East are not conducive to achieving a NWFZ because of lack of peace, lack even of recognition of Israel on the part of some states, and Iran's ongoing cheating and threats. Egypt is attempting to capitalize on the idea of equality in the nuclear realm - that the Obama administration has repeatedly endorsed in its rhetoric - in the direct context of Iran's nuclear ambitions as well: it maintains that these ambitions cannot be dealt with effectively without dealing first with Israel.
Strangely enough, Egypt is willing to undermine its own keen desire to stop Iran by focusing instead on Israel. While this well-worn Egyptian tendency to focus consistent attention on Israel could perhaps have been understood in 2005 when Iran was still considered to be far from its goal, in 2010 Egypt is jeopardizing its own interests.
Two key themes at the heart of US-Egyptian discussions over the Egyptian proposal will be the changed regional conditions that the US believes must accompany any discussion of regional arms control, and the Egyptian move to focus immediately and solely on nuclear weapons (NWFZ) rather than on the goal of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ - including chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems), as stipulated in the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.
The convoluted language in Clinton's speech is most likely testimony to attempts to find compromise formulations. She began this portion of her speech by expressing support for the goal of a WMDFZ in the Middle East in accordance with the 1995 resolution, but in the following sentence switched to a focus on nuclear weapons alone, referring to them as "these weapons of mass destruction." Moreover, she refrained in her speech from mentioning the significance of the lack of peace in the Middle East. She reiterated this theme only after the speech, when speaking to reporters.
In the joint statement to the RevCon released on May 5 by the five permanent members of the Security Council, the conspicuous lack of precise language continued: in this case there was an expression of commitment to the full implementation of the 1995 resolution without mentioning either nuclear weapons or WMD. Otherwise, the commitment of the P5 was only to "consider all relevant proposals" in order to come to an agreed decision "aimed at taking concrete steps in this direction," but no mandate was given for setting up such a zone. Moreover, the mention of the commitment to the 1995 resolution was one short point in a twenty-point document that covered many other issues on the agenda. As such, in and of itself the P5 statement was not a significant development.
The nuanced emphases with regard to the Egyptian proposal will continue until a compromise is achieved. One option being considered is the appointment of a special UN envoy to look into the issue, but the Egyptians are demanding concrete measures. Apparently the major deciding factor as to the nature of the compromise will be the degree to which the US allows itself to be pressured by Egypt - and risk an additional major source of tension with Israel - solely for the sake of being able to pronounce this conference a "success."
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.